French Literature – Maupassant “Mother Sauvage”
1. What is the significance of the blackened stone at the end of the story? Support your answer with other details from the story.
Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Mother Sauvage,” is replete with symbolism.
The story centers around the occupants of “a cottage in ruins” (Maupassant, ), which is the scene of the events narrated. The blackened stone at the end of the story symbolizes the destructive nature of war. It is also a symbol of class differences and the author’s stand that it is the poor who most suffer the repercussions of war.
The writer very effectively portrays the destruction of war in his description of the Sauvage home. The cottage which was “neat, covered with vines, with chickens in front of the door,” before the war, becomes “a dead house, with its skeleton standing bare and sinister” ( ) at the end. All the lives which once dwelt within it – the Sauvage family and the four Prussian soldiers are the casualties war. The blackened stone, lying among the ruins, is all that remains to symbolize the death and destruction wrought by war.
Maupassant also uses the blackened stone to show that it is the poor “who pay the most” ( ) in a war. The narrator’s friend, a Serval, belongs to the aristocratic upper class. His chateau is destroyed by the Prussians in reprisal for the burning of the soldiers by Victoire Simon. However, the destruction of Serval’s chateau is nothing when compared to the havoc wrought by the war on the humble Sauvage cottage. The war not only destroys the building, but also the lives of the mother and her son, and the lives of the four soldiers. While Serval rebuilds his chateau and enjoys life, the poor pay with their very lives for the cost of war. Serval’s chateau comes back to life, but blackened stones are all that remain of the Sauvages’ lives.
2. Contrast the bucolic beauty of the opening description with the gore of the ending. Explain the reasons for these choices and the effect they have on the reader.
Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Mother Sauvage,” begins on a note of bucolic beauty. The writer is lyrical in his description of the countryside, with its woods and brooks, and flower-filled orchards. Nature’s beauty, in all the splendor of forest and countryside, is painted by Maupassant in “enchanted” ( ) tones. He uses this beauty to evoke a feeling of happiness in the reader and sets a tone of anticipation of the “joyful events” ( ) to come. The story unfolds and reaches its climax in death and destruction. This change in the expected direction of the plot is a very effective way of holding the reader’s interest and introducing an element of suspense into the narrative. The initial promise of happiness makes the ultimate bloodshed even more tragic to the reader. Maupassant skillfully uses this contrast to give his narrative a twist in the tale and heightens the effect of the horror which unfolds.
Maupassant also employs this contrast of beauty and gore to show that the evil of war lives in the hearts of man and can take place even in the most beautiful of natural surroundings. The very same beautiful landscape, which symbolizes the happiness of peace, goes on to symbolize the terrible sorrow of war. The beautiful countryside retains its snow-covered loveliness and shines “like a cloth of silver tinted with a red” ( ), as the Sauvage cottage becomes the funeral pyre of the four Prussian soldiers, who are ruthlessly burnt alive by the mother in an act of vengeance for the death of her son. Nature steadfastly retains her beauty. It is a man who is capable of evil even in the midst of such loveliness. The reader becomes aware that the evil of war can unfold even in the most beautiful of natural surroundings.
3. This is not a story about the Franco-Prussian war or about the war in general. So, what is the focus of the story?
Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Mother Sauvage,” does not focus on war. The theme of the story is a mother’s love for her son and the human capacity for vengeance. Victoire Simon is just a peasant woman, living “her ordinary existence in her cottage” ( ) in the isolated countryside. The narrator remembers her as “the good woman (who) had given me a glass of wine to drink” ( ). She stoically accepts the hardships of her life. The ruling passion of her heart is her love for her only son: “She thought always of her own son” ( ). She is hardy, and keeps her emotions and thoughts hidden, just as her hair is confined by her black headdress. The only emotion she allows herself is her “pain and her uneasiness” ( ) at the absence of her soldier son. She lavishes motherly care on the four Prussian soldiers, and “loved them well” ( ).
The brutal death of her boy transforms this good woman into a ruthless instrument of vengeance. Her son’s death breaks open the dam of her stoicism- “little by little the tears came to her eyes and the sorrow-filled her heart” ( ). She plans the murder of the four soldiers in cold blood and goes about executing her plan without any compunction or crises of conscience. Her act of vengeance is not related to the war, or to feelings of patriotism for her country. She acts solely as a mother. She acquires the addresses of the soldiers before she burns them alive so that the facts of their death can be conveyed to their mothers. She wishes to make it clear that the murder of their sons is in reprisal for the death of her own son. She is insistent that the mothers of those four boys should experience the sane anguish and loss that she endures. It is a message to be conveyed from one mother to another mothers. She says, “You must write how it happened, and you must say to their mothers that it was I who did this” ( ). Maupassant portrays a mother’s love for her son and shows how the cruelty of war can transform a mother into a killer of other women’s sons. This is the focus of the story.